Friday, November 18, 2011

My Tastebuds Study Japanese

I’ve traveled a certain amount over the years, but going to Japan was something new.  In the past, I’ve always been able to at least read a menu.


When Pavel took this picture of a menu a man at the next table laughed.  “It’s upside-down” he said, and then immediately added, “I’m sorry.”

That interchange summed up much of our trip—shocking cluelessness (that would be us), and people quick to come to our aid with extreme politeness (the Japanese).

Going to a country where I didn’t know how to say any important words (such as pork, beef, ice cream, apple, fig, potato, or cake) was a little frightening.  Realizing even if I could say them I couldn’t read them didn’t help.  But it was also extremely liberating.

ramen 1

Fact is, I know next to nothing about Japanese food—or any Asian food, for that matter.  It shows in my chopsticks skills. Or lack thereof.  That was one reason I was happy to eat ramen in Tokyo—it was cheap (a gift in Japan), satisfying, and you’re supposed to slurp up the noodles.  Turns out I’m good at slurping. Who knew my childhood skills would come back when called upon?

chopsticks 2
 You see, I had to close my eyes and concentrate
Since I know so little, everything was new. Taro root? Not my favorite. Shiso? Love it. I gained a new appreciation for tofu (I know, I should have eaten plenty, but never cared for it before). My innocence meant that flavors landed in my mouth with no baggage—nothing to rate them against. It meant I could just eat and enjoy the new flavors.


Or not. There were plenty of things I didn’t love.  Uni (sea urchin) is considered a delicacy in Japan.  To me it tasted oddly sweet with a bitter aftertaste, and had a soft, slightly grainy texture.  Not my thing.


Actually, I liked this: peanut tofu with kudzu powder, wasabi, fuki shoot. Could have lived without the uni.
The textures were often tricky for me.  Bland and gelatinous starches (I’m talking to you, taro root compositions) were the hardest.  Funny—somehow I can’t find a photo of taro root.


My glass of Birru (see, I did learn some Japanese!) was a lifesaver, helping me wash down the offending bites.  You can see how far I am in the meal by checking the amount of beer left. At this dinner I was very careful not to run out until I knew there was no more taro root coming my way.

Or any of the questionable fish in the middle of the photo below. It had some sort of crisp topping that reminded me of the worst kids’ brightly colored sugar cereals. I have to admit I don’t know what it tasted like!

questionable salmon

Other foods, though, that I’d always considered bland, such as tofu, I learned to appreciate.  It seemed that much of the food was more delicately flavored than what my Euro-American centric tongue is used to.  

Once I accepted it, I learned to appreciate a depth of flavor that I never suspected existed.  As if the flavors play on a different plane than the ones I’m used to.


That's kelp wrapped beef and burdock, lotus root, ginkgo nuts, and miso-rubbed chicken
The Japanese love of aesthetics is well-known.  Occasionally I found that concern for it superseded a concern for flavor.  Nearly all food I saw was beautiful.

aesthetics 2

How about this sashimi plate with shiso flowers?

Fruit in the grocery store looked perfect, food on the plate as well.  But I didn’t taste a truly delicious apple ever, and some of the beautiful, carefully composed dishes were only that.

girl and boy glasses

There’s also lot of cuteness running around.  Hence Pavel and my water glasses at one ramen spot: pink for me, blue for Pavel. Keeps things clear.

Happily I ate many meals, at restaurants and in homes, where aesthetics, flavor, and pleasure came together. And what wonderful meals they all were.  More on that to come.
ramen 2

And when all else failed, there was always ramen.

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